Monday, October 17, 2005

American Tsunami V

Like we didn't know already: Today, courtesy of memos obtained by the Associated Press, we get a fuller picture of the ineptitude of the Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency -- FEMA -- as the magnet for taxpayer dollars struggled to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The memos showed an agency woefully out of touch with the gravity of the situation, an organization that failed to get it before the storm made landfall and didn't fully understand things days after the storm devastated the Gulf Coast.

Among other tragic missteps: FEMA could not find food, ice, water and even the necessary body bags in the days after Katrina hit the city. The agency charged with stockpiling such basic emergency provisions in advance apparently couldn't track them down when the real deal hit.

The AP story recounts running e-mail conversations, policy discussions, bureaucratic infighting and concerns about how the agency would be perceived in the press -- the usual shortcomings of a government agency increased by orders of magntiude by the greatest natural disaster to hit the United States since the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

Of particular note are the shortcomings of Michael Brown, then director of the agency, a man who, on the weight of available evidence, could not find his ass in the Category 3 windstorm that ultimately cost him his job. Five days after the storm hit on Aug. 29, Brown sent an e-mail to an aide saying there had been “no action from us” to evacuate storm victims using planes that airlines had provided.

“This is flat wrong. We have been flying planes all afternoon and evening,” said a subordinate, Michael Lowder, in an e-mail sent half an hour later. The question is an obvious one: How can the director of an agency not know whether planes are in the air or not?

AP: "A day earlier, a FEMA official in Mississippi received an e-mail asking for Brown’s satellite phone number so a senior Pentagon official in the Gulf Coast could call him. 'Not here in MS (Mississippi). Is in LA (Louisiana) as far as I know,' FEMA official William Carwile e-mailed back, seemingly uncertain on the whereabouts of the administration’s point man for responding to the disaster."

The late Dr. Laurence J. Peter was the author of "The Peter Principle," a celebrated bible for business management before bibles for business management became the rage. One of the book's core principles is instructive when considering the FEMA debacle: [paraphrasing now] Ineptitude -- what Dr. Peter describes as "occupational incompetence" -- rises to its own level of authority in a given organization.

The curious rise and utterly predictable fall of Michael Brown reveals again how the trajectory of a disaster is something discernible from a long way off -- sometimes, even often, from before the disaster even takes place. FEMA's lack of imagination combined with a lack of resources and a lack of willingness to step outside the usual boxes of procedure and routine resulted in a perfect storm within a storm: the hurricane of bureaucratic chaos that doomed hundreds of people as surely as the waters themselves.

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